“Cambs Slam Levelling-up Plan”

Joint Administration leaders tear into the ‘content-lite’ Levelling Up Plan from the Department of State responsible for Housing & Local Government.

You can read both the summaries and the full documents of the Levelling Up Plan here along with the list of 34 headlines from BBC Newsnight’s Lewis Goodall here.

“Is this it?!?!”

…Asked the Shadow Housing & Local Government Secretary Lisa Nandy MP – you can view her full speech here, criticising ‘the shopping list of recycled policies and fiddled figures’. The Shadow Secretary of State had clearly done her homework & research.

The leaders of Cambridgeshire County Council’s joint administration, Cllrs Lucy Nethsingha (Lib Dems – Newnham) and Elisa Meschini (Lab – King’s Hedges) did not hold back. You can read their full statement here. (Hence the blogpost title).

It looks rushed, badly designed, and poorly proof-read

Whether it’s a failure to label axes on graphs, omitting single paragraph explanations as to what charts show, to awkward colour schemes, to not labelling towns and cities on maps, the example below is a reflection of this. It assumes a familiarity of the East of England – with similar ones for other regions. But how familiar is the target audience with the geography? What do the shades of the counties and local authority areas indicate?

Above – p284: what is this map trying to tell the reader from the perspective of the writer?

Cambridge takes a kicking

Or rather, one continual theme is that too much research and innovation funding is concentrated in ‘the golden triangle’ of Oxford, Cambridge, and London. Given the lack of a direct rail link between Oxford and Cambridge, for me the concept of a golden triangle is a myth. It’s more two fingers being stuck up Winston WW2 style. We’re still waiting for the Bedford-Cambridge link to begin construction with East West Rail. (Still a long way to go on the planning side).

Inconsistent terms – Cambridge? Greater Cambridge? Cambridge and Peterborough? Cambridgeshire & Peterborough?

Above – such is the mess that successive ministers have made of meddling with local government structures that it’s not clear what fits in where. Take the 30 zero emission buses for Cambridge and Peterborough. Are we talking geographical locations? It can’t be the councils because Cambridge City Council isn’t the transport authority. Furthermore, the Combined Authority covers Cambridgeshire and Peterborough – as Mayor Dr Nik Johnson has to remind politicians and business people time-and-again.

Democratic deficit redefined as ’empowering local leaders and communities

Which will make for an interesting discussion point at the South Cambridgeshire District Council elections in May 2022. Because one of the biggest complaints about the Greater Cambridge Partnership and the City Deal are the continued complaints from, and campaigns by residents and campaign groups about the decisions taken by the partnership – in particular the busways.

Above – Michael Gove’s new Levelling Up Paper tells local residents in “Greater Cambridge” – presumably defined as the geographical areas covered by Cambridge City Council & South Cambridgeshire District Council, ’empowers local leaders and communities.

For the first four years of that deal, Conservative councillors held the majority of votes in the City Deal Board (from 2014-18) and held one of the three seats (the county seat) until 2021. So they have some explaining to do on their votes for the busways. From 2021 onwards, it’s the Liberal Democrats who have got some explaining to do on why they did not (along with Labour) put a stop to the unpopular busway plans that were in no one’s election manifestos. There is a longer and much more complicated history to this, but at no point can I recall meetings of full councils voting on motions tabled by their executive councillors on the City Deal Board (or Assembly) asking for a mandate to vote for the proposed busways.

The same goes for the combined authorities – where was the democratic mandate? While people got to vote for their mayoral candidates in 2016, there was no popular mandate for the Combined Authority as a concept – one which I strongly opposed at the time and still have issues with today. As I conceded to Labour councillors at the time, the one major and significant concession they secured from ministers was capital funding for hundreds of new council houses, many of which have been or are nearing completion, in particular off Mill Road. As I said at the time, it’s easy for me to oppose a concept, but I’m not the one who has to look a family stuck in a bedsit in the eye and tell them they can’t have council houses. The numbers are significant enough to make an impact on hundreds of families locally.

“Is levelling up top down?”

The Secretary of State (Gove) won’t concede on that point, but in the grand scheme of things, that’s exactly what it is – and was articulated clearly by Chris Matheson MP (Lab – Chester) in his question to to Gove – you can watch it here. If it sounds like we’ve been here before, that’s because we have. When the first proposals for a Combined Authority for East Anglia (Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire) were proposed, I was interviewed by Dotty McLeod of BBC Radio Cambridgeshire about the shortcomings including a very small research base, the lack of transparency, and the lack of due process.

“Above – Dotty McLeod of BBC Cambridgeshire interviews Antony Carpen on East Anglia devolution. 19 May 2016

In effect, what we’re seeing in Gove’s proposals is the creation of a smaller number of metro and county mayors that will have to apply for minister-controlled ‘funding pots’ – eg the pot for zero emission buses that Mayor Nik Johnson was successful in bidding for, and thus creating a new tier of regional governance that Gove’s predecessor from 2010, Eric Pickles despised with a passion – so much so that he described the old regional structures as undemocratic and the civil servants that worked in the regional offices, “Agents of Whitehall”. Before making them all redundant with the swift stroke of his ministerial pen. And here we are just over ten years later with one of his successors (who was Education Secretary back in 2010 – with a Special Advisor called D. Cummings – yes, that one) recreating in a much more unplanned fashion, that regional tier, recalling that it was Michael Heseltine MP as John Major’s Deputy Prime Minister & Environment Secretary who established the regional office network (including the Cambridge Office where I started my civil service career) in the first place. Pickles also got rid of the regional house building strategies – inevitably controversial in rural areas due to the top-down housebuilding targets with a cumulative target figure of 3million new homes built between 2010-2020. In the end, just under 1.9million were built, according to Savills. That’s not to say the extra 1.1m properties would have solved all of the problems – not least the water supply issues. There still remains the problem of building the right housing types in the right areas – something which ministerial foot-dragging on international money-laundering through the UK property market makes worse. (Land being a fixed commodity means that a plot used for luxury apartments cannot be used for social housing – even though many of the people who might live in social housing work in jobs that are essential for cities to function). This was something the Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy MP raised in the Commons on 01 Feb 2022.

No restructuring of local government

It didn’t really come as much of a surprise – the content dealing with local councils was inevitably light given the favour ministers have for the mayoral model – one that favours bundling in smaller cities like Cambridge with larger rural hinterlands with a greater population, leading to a greater chance of Conservative mayors. With the legislation switching to a First-Past-The-Post system following the loss of Cambridgeshire, these reforms as they are will only cement a Conservative stranglehold.

While there is a case for wholesale institutional reform, this could distract from the implementation of improved local government services and outcomes, and delay the agreement and implementation of devolution deals.

The UK Government will not impose top-down restructuring of local government. Reorganisation will remain a locally-led avenue available where there is broad local support, but will not be a requirement for a devolution deal. The UK Government intends to follow an incremental approach, using existing legislation to work with areas which are seeking to establish reformed local governance structures.”

Above – p175 of the Levelling Up White Paper Full Report

Gove & co looked at the wrong history books

One of the most random parts of the document was the list of which cities were the biggest in the world throughout history.

Above – from p34 of the Levelling Up Full Report.

They would have been far better advised to have referenced A Century of Municipal Progress 1835-1935 – one of the editors being Sir Ivor Jennings QC, later the Chancellor of Cambridge University who in the early 1960s told the dons that they had a responsibility towards, and to improve the City of Cambridge. Furthermore, the following 50 years of municipal decline 1935-85 would also have made for interesting reading for policy-makers. Given that both of these illustrate the incremental changes – the massive overhaul of local government proposed in the Royal Commission on Local Government in England 1966-69 being rejected by Edward Heath’s Government, may have given policy makers some ideas on how to make the incremental improvements that the Secretary of State Gove might have in mind in his Levelling Up plan.

This was something the Royal Commission 1966-69 addressed. It acknowledged the mass transfer of local hospitals as part of founding the National Health Service had huge implications for local councils.

Above – Royal Commission on Local Government in England vol 1, para 63.

Given the huge task of rebuilding – and in an era of rationing of not just food and petrol, but of building workers and building materials, you can understand why Attlee and Bevan took the approach they did. Perhaps even more so given the opposition to the National Health Service Bill from the Conservatives, then in opposition when the Minister for Health Aneurin Bevan tabled the legislation at Second Reading, asking the House of Commons to approve the principles of his proposals. (You can read the transcript of the debate from 30 April 1946 here).

From the perspective of Harold Wilson’s Labour Government (1964-70), perhaps what should have happened was the creation of structures & systems of healthcare that mirrored local government. This was something Labour tried again under Tony Blair with the White Paper Strong & Prosperous Communities of 2006 – something I found myself thrown into the deep end on when having just got my results of the civil service in-service Fast Stream assessment centre, was told I was leaving Cambridge for London in two weeks to work with the team delivering a core part of the new local government reporting requirements – only for Eric Pickles to ditch the lot four years later. Such is the work of a civil servant that you can find yourself directed to undo the policy work you’d spent years working on for a previous administration. (Some of my former colleagues found themselves having to go to annual public events telling similar audiences why the policy they said was a good one a year ago, was now a bad one and needed scrapping).

As a result of the 2010 General Election, proposals to align local councils and Primary Care Trusts never got off the ground – Andrew Lansley’s disastrous reforms abolishing PCTs completely.

Above – p199 of Strong & Prosperous Communities – proposals to align delivery of primary care services with council boundaries of a new generation of unitary local authorities.

“Will there be time for Michael Gove to deliver on his numerous deadlines in 2030?”

There are some very bold commitments…

Housing and Transport – asking a lot with just eight years to deliver

Given the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s inability to put spades in sand for new busways over the past eight years, there will be trouble ahead. Gove has titled these 2030 commitments as “medium term missions”.

Above – from p117 of the paper doc, p152 of the online one, that’s a very big call for local public transport connectivity (bottom row)

Does the UK have the manufacturing capacity to build all of the new buses and light rail carriages? Does it have the construction industry capacity to build the new infrastructure post-Brexit?

Above – some big calls on housing – the long time assumption being that First Time Buyers are more likely to vote (because they are settled, vs people in insecure rental accommodation) and are thus a target cohort for political parties hunting for votes. It will be interesting to see what metrics they use for “Pride in Place” – recalling debates on what were the top 200 or so most important issues in the UK that needed to be measured as part of a national indicator set that all local councils in England would be judged against. You can have a look at the old indicator set here.

“Anything good to say about the White Paper?”

From my perspective it’s utterly irrelevant due to the chaos and uncertainty in Westminster and Whitehall. Why would anyone want to commit anything to an agenda when it’s only a matter of time before the Prime Minister is ejected? More backbench MPs have publicly declared ‘no confidence’ in him. When that happens, will Gove go for the top job? Or one of the other top offices of state? (Chancellor, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary?). If so, will his replacement want to take on the White Paper as is, or set their own agenda? Just because politicians are in the same party – even the same Cabinet, does not mean that when there’s a reshuffle they will continue with their predecessor’s policies. Take Communities in Control (you’ll have to rotate the PDF) from Labour when Hazel Blears was Communities & Local Government Secretary. This agenda was dropped by her successor John Denham shortly after the former’s resignation. What’s to say a successor to Gove won’t do the same thing?

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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